Acts 2:41-47 has long been a focus of discussion in the history of the church, especially in the Anabaptist as well Bristish dissenter traditions. It is particularly important among “restorationist” streams for obvious reasons.
My interest in this post is focused on the meaning of “breaking of bread” in this narrative description of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. I will first offer some summary arguments for my own understanding of the text and then respond to common objections to that understanding.
Essentially, I believe that Luke has no formal or theological distinction between meal and what Paul calls the Lord’s Supper or Lord’s Table. For Luke (and Paul too, I think) the meal is the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Supper is the meal. “Breaking Bread” is his name for this, and this is what he is assuming by the language in Acts 2:42 and Acts 2:46 which are referencing the same reality–a communal meal with the risen Christ.
Text (ASV Adjusted to Emphasize the Imperfect Tense with Italics)
“They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls. And they [were continuing] stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear [was coming] upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all that believed were together, and [were having] all things common; and they [were selling] their possessions and goods, and [were parting] them to all, according as any man [was having] need. And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they [were taking] their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord [was adding] to them day by day those that were saved.”
The Meaning of Breaking Bread in Acts 2
Argument 1: Luke says they continued in the breaking of bread (2:42), and then he says they broke bread (2:46). The unity of the text (Acts 2:42-47) is sustained by the repeated use of the imperfect tense (10x). The disciples were constantly devoted to the acts in Acts 2:42. Verbs in the imperfect tense are then repeated throughout 2:42-47 as a way of rooting those actions in the statement of Acts 2:42. Acts 2:42 says they were devoted to “X” and Acts 2:43-47 says they did “X.” They were devoted to breaking bread (Acts 2:42) and they did it (Acts 2:46). The unity of the text is stressed by the use of the imperfect verbs to describe the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem.
Argument 2: The language of “breaking bread” is dependent upon the Gospel of Luke. At the very least, it is the language that takes us back to Luke 22 and Luke 24. Readers of Acts would have recognized the intratextual and narratival meaning “breaking bread” as eating in the presence of the living Christ who is the host. “Breaking bread” in Acts is, at least, a continuation of the post-resurrection meals with Jesus in Luke 24 and the meal promised by Jesus in Luke 22.
Argument 3: The narrative reading of Acts 2 itself counts against distinguishing them. It is rather strange to use the same words to describe two different actions within the space of five verses in a single paragraph (especially when these verses are themselves summary descriptions) when we are talking about the same people, in the same tradition (Christian), in the same city, during the same time, continuing the same actions to which the community was devoted. The prima facie meaning is the identification of the two references to breaking bread in Acts 2:42 and 2:46. There would need to be a significant and obvious distinction within the paragraph itself to overturn the compelling unity of the paragraph which identifies them.
Argument 4: The repetition of breaking bread in Acts 2:46 from Acts 2:42 parallels the repetition of all aspects of Acts 2:42 in the space of these five verses. The “fellowship” (koinonia) of Acts 2:42 is the same as holding all things in “common” (koina) in 2:44. The teaching of the apostles of Acts 2:42 is what the disciples gathered in the temple heard (cf. Acts 5:42) and their leadership is confirmed or illustrated by their miracles (Acts 2:43). Prayers, of course, were also offered in the temple (Acts 3:1ff) and probably part of “praising God” in 2:47. Breaking bread in Acts 2:46, then, is naturally connected with Acts 2:42 as are other parts of Acts 2:42 in Acts 2:43-47.
Objections to the Above
Objection One: Since breaking bread in Acts 2:46 includes the consumption of food (trophes), it most likely refers to a common meal rather than the Lord’s Supper.
This assumes that “eating food” cannot refer to the Lord’s Supper, that is, it assumes the Lord’s Supper is not a meal. I think this argument imports a presupposition rather than letting the text speak for itself. It seems to me that the opposite is true, that is, the Lord’s Supper is a “supper” (a meal) and thus entails the consumption of food (trophes). The phrase “breaking bread” refers to the first act of a meal–the act that inaugurates the meal. Thus, even without the term food (trophes) “breaking bread” is the act that introduces the eating of food.
Objection 2: “Breaking bread” in Acts 2:42 uses the article with bread; it is the breaking of “the bread.” This may indicate that it is special bread or bread for a special purpose such as in the Lord’s Supper. Since the article is missing in Acts 2:46, Luke seems to introduce a distinction between the two. Without the article, “bread” refers to a common meal and not the Lord’s Supper.
Actually, this more a matter of Luke’s style and grammar than theological distinction. Acts 20:7 is breaking bread without the article, but in Acts 20:11 “breaking bread” has the article. I submit that they both refer to the same thing and not two different things. They came together to break bread and they did. Interestingly some believe that 20:11 (with the article) refers to a common meal while Acts 20:7 refers to the Lord’s Supper (without the article) while at the same time suggesting that Acts 2:46 (without the article) is a common meal while Acts 2:42 (with the article) is the Lord’s Supper. In other words, “the bread” in Acts 20 is a common meal but “the bread” in Acts 2 is the Lord’s Supper but “bread” (without the article) in Acts 2 is a common meal while “bread” (without the article) in Acts 20 is the Lord’s Supper. There is no consistent way to read whether “breaking bread” is a common meal or the Lord’s Supper based on the use of the article with bread. Further, both uses of “breaking bread” in Luke 24:30, 35 refer to the breaking of “the bread.” Clearly this was not “special bread” but the beginning of a meal–but a meal with Jesus and thus “breaking bread” for Luke. The article does not make a theological or conceptual distinction but rather serves a grammatical or stylistic function.
Objection 3: Whereas Acts 2:42 appears to be a list of activities in a religious service or a liturgical description, Acts 2:46 describes what takes place in a home that does not appear to be liturgical in character.
Though Acts 2:42 has often be interpreted liturgically–and it may indeed be applied that way, it does not function liturgically in the context. Rather, Acts 2:42 is a summary that is fleshed out in Acts 2:43-47. For example, we learn that fellowship (koinonia) in Acts 2:42 includes shared resources as the community had everything in common (koina). Their sharing of resources was not only in a liturgy but part of their lifestyle. Further, Acts 2:46 describes a community that assembles in the temple and gathers in homes “praising God.” Home was the place of liturgical action as well as the temple for early Christians.
Objection 4: “Daily” modifes only the temple assemblies and not the home gatherings in Acts 2:46.
This is quite dubious grammatically. “Daily” (kath’ hermeran) stands at the head of the sentence in Acts 2:46 so that it is in the most natural place to modify both participles (“continuing in the temple” and “breaking bread”). If “daily” was understood as only modifying “continuing,” then the more natural construction would be (I will use English wording but in Greek word order): “continuing te (a particle which has a joining function) daily together in the temple, breaking te at home bread.” If “daily” refered only to the temple, it would come after the te and not at the head of the whole sentence. The NRSV makes this clear: “day by day continuing to meet in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house.”
Further, the te…te structure has the significance of “both…and.” The point is that “daily, both continuing together in the temple and breaking bread at home, they were eating food with joy and unity.” They celebrated the new age by daily gathering in the temple and homes. They heard the apostles teach and prayed the prayers in the temple, but they broke bread in their homes. In this way they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers. For early Jerusalem church pictured here this was a daily teaching (temple) and fellowship (home), and the latter included the breaking of bread.
Objection 5: If Acts 2:46 refers to a daily breaking of bread and the breaking of bread is the Lord’s Supper, then this contradicts Luke’s broader context where disciples met for the purpose of breaking bread on the first day of the week in Acts 20:7. It appears that they were not breaking bread daily in Troas because Paul waited there seven days to break bread with the disciples. If another day was acceptable other than the first day of the week, then Paul could have called a special Thursday (or any other day) meeting for the purpose of breaking bread.
The assumption is that Paul stayed in Troas in order to wait to eat with the disciples. He may have stayed seven days because the boat did not leave till then. But this is speculative. I don’t have a problem with saying that the Troas disciples met only on the first day of the week to break bread but we must recognize that the “only” is an inference and not explicitly stated in the text. Daily breaking of bread was not a requirement but one way of eating as often as one desired. Weekly breaking bread was also quite acceptable (perhaps even the normal practice across the churches) and Paul accomodated to the practice of the church at Troas. Indeed, we don’t know whether there were other meetings. Luke is concerned about this particular meeting because it includes a resurrection story. It is a concrete experience of the meaning of the supper itself–to eat with the resurrected one.
Objection 6: Acts 2:46 does not mention wine. We may presume that daily meals in Jersualem did not use wine which was only used on festive occasions due to its expense. Consequently, it is unreasonable to assume that that the daily breaking of bread in Acts 2:46 refers to the Lord’s Supper where bread and wine are both present because the expense would have been excessive.
I would suggest an alternative reading. Many of these new believers in Acts 2 were pilgrims who had come to celebrate Pentecost. This celebration included eating fellowship offerings together throughout the week which would have included wine since it was a festive gathering (Leviticus 23:15-21). The experience of “daily” meals–festive meals of thanksgiving through the breaking of bread–was part of the festive atmosphere. The pilgrims understood that Pentecost was the experience of the gracious outpouring of God’s Spirit, the renewal of Israel, and they celebrated by eating “daily” in their homes in small groups. I would suggest that this was not a perpetual ordinance in the Jerusalem church. Rather, it lasted perhaps as long as the Pentecost festival lasted or as long as the pilgrims were in town. Whatever the case may be, the “daily” eating together fits the festive context of Pentecost. How long it lasted is, of course, unknown, but it such daily festive meals make sense in the context of Pentecost.
Objection 7: Neither Acts 2:42 or 2:46 are references to the Lord’s Supper because it only refers to the breaking of bread. There is no mention of wine which is necessary for the Lord’s Supper.
I have occasionally read this objection in scholarly literature but I always thought it was rather strange. If “breaking bread” refers to the initiating act of a meal, then it is a metaphor for the whole meal. Luke does not have to tell us everything they ate or drank in order to use this phrase for a meal. The phrase itself means “the meal.” The specific absence of wine is not significant, especially in the light of the phrase’s narrative function. A meal includes its drink whether specified or not.
This is a rather brief account of some specific hermeneutical and exegetical details. But I hope it is sufficient to exegetically ground my conclusion that the breaking of bread in Acts 2:42 and Acts 2:46 is both a meal and the Lord’s Supper. The two are one in the same for Luke. Breaking bread is a meal in honor of and eating with the risen Christ.